Future of farming must be built on different thinking

Future of farming must be built on different thinking


Cropping
Peter Mailler is a grain and cattle farmer on the NSW/Queensland border.

Peter Mailler is a grain and cattle farmer on the NSW/Queensland border.

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In this week's The Gauge, Peter Mailler ponders the risky nature of modern farming.

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The Gauge | Opinion 

I have been one of the lucky few who has been able to plant and establish a winter crop. While we were well prepared and did a good job technically, the simple truth is that we were just lucky to get a few useful falls of rain at the right time.

My luck over the past few years has been mixed though and I often pause to consider how my weather has changed since I started farming nearly three short decades ago.

I have concluded that the risk in Australian agriculture has changed since I first started to farm, and it is increasing.

Every enterprise should consider risk carefully. Every decision to invest or participate in a venture should consider the risk and the likely return. Low risk ventures are easily justified even with a relatively low return. Higher risk ventures generally need to demonstrate a higher rate of return to justify investment.

People who invest based on projected returns from an investment with no regard or understanding of what can or is likely to go wrong are likely to get burned.

Of course, individuals have different appetites and different capacities for risk. A conservative rule of thumb is to only risk what you can afford to lose.

I am too young to retire and too old to start again so I find myself considering my business and the inherent risks in farming more carefully.

The Bureau of Meteorology has published its most recent seasonal outlook which points to drier and warmer weather for the next three months.

Despite the rather depressing seasonal outlook, I should still be able to turn a profit from the ensuing season. Many of my peers will not and their pain will not be quarantined to their farms.

While I know what this season means for me as an individual, I am compelled to think about what it means for the broader agricultural sector.

The chance of exceeding above average rainfall over the next three months. Source: The BoM

The chance of exceeding above average rainfall over the next three months. Source: The BoM

I firmly believe that society isn't responsible for keeping every individual farmer farming, but there is a profound social imperative to ensure that the agricultural enterprise that sustains the broader population is viable.

Current market and public policy forces are increasing pressure on individual farming enterprises in a way that compounds short term weather disruptions. Short term commercial survival strategies often compromise longer term natural capital stocks.

The science that underpins the long-term weather outlook is increasingly confident that Australia will experience more extreme weather events more frequently. This increasing volatility is arguably the hardest aspect of our changing weather to manage and absorb. It presents a profound production risk that is set to increase.

Australian production systems are among the best in the world for combating weather volatility and we have got there on the back of some of the lowest levels of government support to the sector in the world. Sadly, internal mitigation of the risks is now beyond the scope of many if not most enterprises.

Australian agriculture should have a bright future and with wonderful opportunities for individuals and communities alike. However, that future will necessarily be built on very different thinking about markets and structural reform.

Meanwhile, our farm leaders and governments cannot articulate a cohesive drought strategy or policy that even recognises the importance to society of keeping our best farmers farming in the best ways.

- Peter Mailler is a third generation grain and cattle farmer on the NSW/Queensland border.

The story Future of farming must be built on different thinking first appeared on Farm Online.

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